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Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension


 

The Inn of the Sick Happiness, or...

Mansion Mystery (1941)

Written by G. W. Spelven 
Directed by George O. Welles
Details at the IMDB, US.IMDB

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost (1874 - 1963)

 

It's a given.  Those cheap, generic movies from the Monogram production company don't deserve critical attention.  However, this is not completely true. It's more that they'd like to avoid critical attention and simply entertain for about an hour.

However, some rare examples from the vast body of Monogram's output show a certain potential.  These precious few attempted to be something more than pale imitations of better movies.  Sometimes you may see one of these and think, if only they had a bigger budget, or, if only they had a few more days to shoot, or, if only they had a better actor in the lead, then this one might have given the majors some serious competition.

Which leads us to this article's feature attraction.  Who knows?  In another reality, this movie might've been memorable.

Contents

 

The Plot

Not-So-Famous Last Words

After opening credits (white on black, simple string music score), we go to some (bad) day-for-night shots of an old mansion.  One of the shots pauses at a sign that says, "No Trespassing."  (Does that mean we shouldn't go into the rest of the movie?)  A few cuts later, and we are in a bedroom.  An elderly man in bed (Bob Hope) says one word: "Mansion."  (We suspect this may be important later because the director gave the actor such a tight close-up, you can darn near see his tonsils.)  He drops something that looks like a chess pawn.  It rolls under his bed.  (Betcha the maid will miss getting that.)  Two people, Kane's wife Dorothy (Anne Nagel) and a manservant called Raymond (John Carradine) lean over the body.  They talk about calling the police.  Raymond is at first defensive against that idea, but finally agrees.  (Gee, you don't suppose he's got something to hide?)

Speaking of such things, what ever became of that TV series Maniac Mansion? "Michael Rennie was ill
The Day the Earth Stood Still
But he told us where we stand...."

Go to a press room.  A reporter called Herbert Carter (Bob Steele) tells his boss Brannigan (Douglas Fowley) that Charles Foster Kane has died.  Brannigan doesn't seem too surprised.  (Gee, maybe he's got something to hide, too)  The official reading the will is scheduled for tonight at the Kane place.  The crusty old manager sends Carter to Get The Story and find out what Kane meant by "mansion."

Nighttime at the Kane Mansion again.  (Isn't it ever daylight over here?)  Carter arrives with his comic relief date Jane (Joyce Compton).  She comments on what a spooky place this is at night.  Carter tells her she should've seen it when it was new.

Raymond lets them in.  While they walk, Carter and Raymond talk about Kane's public image.  Go to stock footage, showing how Kane suddenly rose to greatness on the money of his father, a senator from California.  He went into the publishing business and did even better.  (And that means lots of stock footage of newspaper presses and books.)  After that, he went into other industries, particularly munitions.  (Yup.  More stock footage of other industries, including things like tanks and artillery pieces.)  Then he built this home, so we are treated to various images of the mansion.  (More like, stock footage of other mansions.)  And he collected several animals.  (And, apparently, stock footage of animals, too.  Oh, look, he's got the rubber octopus previously seen in American (1941) and later seen in Bride of the Monster (1956).  Cripes, is this whole movie going to be fixed-up footage?)

They pause at the entrance to the parlor where they'll be reading the will.  Raymond introduces Carter and Jane to those standing at the door.  There's Dorothy the grieving widow, plus Kane's business partner Bernstein (Charles Bennet).  The latter needs to ask Raymond a few questions.  They walk away, talking quietly.  

Carter asks Jane to go ahead in.  After she's gone, her tries to strike up a conversation with Dorothy.  He asks her about what Kane might've meant by "mansion."  Did he mean this place?  However, she doesn't want to talk to the young reporter.  (Heh, score one for the reporter's sense of tact.)  Enter Kane's lawyer Thatcher (George Zucco).  He announces that they'll be reading the will shortly.  Then he takes Carter aside and asks him not to bother the widow just now.  She, says Thatcher, is usually very talkative, but not today.  Carter takes this opportunity to ask Thatcher what he knew about Kane's last words.  And then the story goes into heavy flashback mode.

Thatcher tells Carter about the time his father, Thatcher Sr., first met Kane.  The scene shifts to several years earlier, when Kane was a boy.  Thatcher Sr., (Zucco again, and wearing a wig so he'll look more youthful -- it doesn't work) is talking to Kane's mother  Mary (Agnes Moorhead) and father Senator Kane (Harry Shannon) about the boy's upbringing.  Mary says the boy should go to a private school in Chicago and get away from the barbaric, rustic life in California.  (Heh.  Good joke for the time.)   We learn that they can easily afford this because the Kane family is quite wealthy due to some successful gold prospecting about a year ago, but the senator wants the boy to have a more manly upbringing.  (Grow up wimpy in Chicago or manly in California.  Gee, how times change....)  While the senator continues to expresses his dislike of the idea, Mary brings out a couple of trunks.

In the background of this flashback, young Kane (Robert Blake) has been playing with himself -- that is, he's playing a board game, and he seems to be the only player.  Mary tells him he's going to Chicago with Mr. Thatcher to learn how to be a great man.  Thatcher Sr. enters the conversation and says it's time to go.  On their way out, young Kane asks the lawyer if he can have happiness in Chicago.  (It's as creepy as it reads.)  Thatcher Sr. says that's up to him.

And the flashback flashes forward a little bit to some still shots of Chicago in the 1880's.  (If it were Boston, we'd have the horrid feeling this was about to segue into an episode of Cheers.)  In a comfortable drawing room.  Young Kane opens a present.  It's a sled with the word "Rosebud."  The boy protests that he wanted happiness.  Thatcher Sr., looking a little more sinister than earlier, tells him there will be time for his old happiness later.

End flashback.  Thatcher tells Carter that when Kane went to Chicago and lived with the Thatchers, they lived in a mansion.  Carter asks if Kane ever found happiness in Chicago.  The lawyer merely says, "Who can say?"

Bernstein interrupts the conversation by announcing to Thatcher that the others are ready for the reading of the will.  Thatcher excuses himself, leaving Carter and Bernstein.  Before they walk into the parlor for this event, Bernstein asks Carter what he's doing here.  The reporter tells the elder businessman that he was sent by the Inquirer.  Bernstein correctly guesses this story will be less about who gets what, but rather, what Kane was trying to say when he was murdered.  Carter looks at Bernstein in surprise.  That's off the record, says Bernstein. 
  

Buy the Book

In a small parlor, the rest of the characters have taken seats.  Thatcher begins.  There's a preamble listing those present, including Jeb Leland (Joseph Cotton), who was a longtime friend of Kane.  Furthermore, it lists "member of the press."  Thatcher pauses and tells Carter that his presence here was prearranged.  

After these introductory notes, Kane's will is (unlike this movie) very concise; it gets right to the point.  The whole estate, valued at sixty million dollars, will be held in trust until someone finds his happiness.  Everyone is a understandably perplexed.  The lawyer continues.  According to his instructions, when the happiness is found, the wealth will follow.  Bernstein protests, and so does Leland.

But Thatcher tells them he is bound by his instructions.  Leland asks how they'll know when they find this "happiness."  The lawyer explains that this will be obvious when it's found.  Bernstein insinuates this is some trick by Thatcher, and if it isn't a trick, then how do they know he isn't keeping information from them.  Thatcher tells him he is not allowed to be the one to find it, whatever it is.  (Wait a minute.  The lawyer is passing up sixty million?  Don't know what Kane paid him, but in the scale of things, it might as well been pro bono.)

Raymond and Dorothy express their displeasure, too.  They don't see why they should have to play some silly treasure hunt for what is rightfully theirs.  Carter quietly listens to all this.  Then he turns to Jane and suggests she goes powder he nose.  When she says her nose is plenty powdery already, he tells her to take some off first.

Carter leads Bernstein aside and asks him what he meant by Kane being murdered.  Bernstein says it's a suspicion of his.  When the reporter begins to remark that it's a terrible accusation at this time, the old businessman laughs.  Kane, said Bernstein, probably died of unhappiness.  Then he explains what he means.

And we get another flashback.  Bernstein and Leland (both a lot more youthful looking; the makeup crew must've had a field day) enter a building with Kane (who we finally see clearly in this movie).  They talk about how owning a book publishing business should be interesting.  They meet a few of the staff.  Kane immediately asks who they have for authors.  The manager (John Eliot) says they have a few, but they mostly publish cookbooks and reprints of older novels.  

From now on, says the new owner, they will be printing books that will make people happy.  He holds up a book and explains that this is an adventure novel.  It's published by a company across town.  Then he asks why his new book company isn't publishing it.  (Uh, plagiarism comes to mind.)  The manager says their company isn't interested in such lurid things.  Maybe that used to be, says Kane, but not any more.

Kane's mother (Agnes Moorehead) threatens to turn Thatcher Sr. into a newt. Kane (Bob Hope) relieves Thatcher (George Zucco)...of his wallet.

Fade ahead to a few weeks later in the flashback.  Bernstein, Leland, and Kane are sitting in an office.  Leland says their sales figures are way up for this quarter.  Kane says he's winning the game.  What game, asks Bernstein.  Happiness, answers the enigmatic entrepreneur.  Happiness is a game, he explains, and the object of the game is to win.  Bernstein asks about all those people who aren't winning,  Kane answers, they'll buy one of our books because we'll promise them it will make them happy.  (Maybe they're going to use cannabis for the paper stock.)

Kane shows them a scrap of paper he's been writing on.  The header says, Declaration of Value.  Kane tells Bernstein to have these words put in every book they publish from now on.  Bernstein starts to read it out loud.  "We guarantee that every book printed by Kane Publishing will be free of boredom and the commonplace."  (Don't you wish this movie was printed by Kane?)

End flashback.  Carter asks if Kane was honest about his declaration.  Bernstein says that Kane thought happiness was something you could buy, but it was a rare purchase; you had to shop around for it.  Maybe he could sell happiness.  And maybe he couldn't buy his happiness anymore, or maybe he felt like he was losing the game.  Either way, it was probably his realization that he wasn't happy that finally got to him in the end.  And then Bernstein realizes what he'd been saying.  You don't suppose, he says, this has anything to do with finding his happiness?

Elsewhere, Thatcher is going through a set of desk drawers in an office.  He doesn't notice a close-up of men's shoes approaching him from behind, and he doesn't see the close-up of a pair of hands holding a length of cord, either.  Thatcher stops looking through the drawers.  He holds up a spinner from a game.  That's when the cord goes around his neck.  He struggles and knocks a lamp off a desk.  (Thatcher must've hit a "lose your turn" on that spin.)  The lights go out. (That or they ran out of movie just then.)

Back in the parlor, Jane says to Carter that she has an idea.  Kane's last word was "mansion," and people are supposed to be looking for his happiness.  Maybe it was the mansion that made him happy.  Carter says she's right.  Mystery solved.  The end.  Nah, just kidding; there's still more movie.  Carter says he doubts that because he lived here and was unhappy in the end.  But he thinks there's a connection between "mansion" and happiness.  

Leland has overheard this and says he may be right.  Carter asks him what he thinks about this .  But the older business man says he thinks he'd like a cigar, then immediately hits up the reporter for one.  When the reporter says he doesn't have any cigars, he asks Jane for one.  No go.  (Something strangely phallic about that exchange.)  Leland says it's just as well; his doctor told him to cut down.  But a cigar would sure make him happy, and might help him figure out what this happiness they're looking for is supposed to be.

Carter asks him again about this mansion and happiness.  He says there used to be happiness here.  And then the movie hits another flashback.  (Dammit, how many more of these things is this movie going to have?)


The Good Stuff

Ambitious

For a cheap Monogram production, this movie has a surprisingly ambitious script.  Rather than a simple story with an easily solved mystery, there are plenty of twists.  And it's a good set up.  Carter has to find out what Kane meant by his last words while trying talk to people who have only parts of the answer.  Meanwhile, people who do find the answer are dying off.  This gives the plot a nice push/pull effect.  And even though the whodunit is easy, the whydunit keeps chugging away until the ending.

Characters are more multidimensional than the average disposable Iron Age B movie.  Jane comes across as a dizzy blonde comic relief, but she has a few good ideas that point Carter in the right direction.  Thatcher plays as both suspicious and congenial at the same time.  Dorothy starts out nice and simple, but becomes bored to the point of playing Kane's old board game by herself.  Some of the actors have to play characters as both young and old in various scenes.  That's not to say all the characters have depth.  You suspect Raymond and Dorothy have something to hide in the very beginning, so it's no surprise when it's revealed that they do.

Attempts at philosophy are also entertaining.  The theme of happiness as something lost plays well on its own.  Kane lost something that made him happy and began to confuse materialism with happiness.  People try to figure out what it was and lose track of it because they start to think in terms of materialism.  In the end, they discover it really was an object of materialism, but it was bound to a spiritual motive.  Presentations of psychological themes like this was usually attempted by the bigger studios, not poverty row.
  

The Bad Stuff

Flashback-O-Rama

This movie has more flashbacks than an LSD recovery ward.  The story moves in a nice, normal direction, and than, Bam!, here comes another flashback.  Why couldn't they just keep the movie nice and linear?  It's as if they started making a movie about a wealthy man who lost sight of his happiness when he became cynical, and then some hack tacked it into a hastily written murder mystery because this was the sort of thing Monogram made.

Also note the poor production values in the flashbacks.  They must've gone through a couple of film libraries to get about ten percent of this movie's runtime.  It's not as bad as some stock footage parades (see Jungle Hell) but it gets annoying.  Once again, if they really needed to tell the life of Kane, which they probably didn't, they should've done it without flashbacks.
  

Ego Writes Check; Check Bounces

Although the script is ambitious, the production is not.  For example, several scenes are out of focus.  Although the director had a good hand on staging things for the camera, he didn't seem to understand that his cameras had limited depth.  Maybe if he'd put all the actors at the same distance from the camera instead of spacing them out so much, this might've looked better.

There are also several scenes where they try to convey the strength of characters by putting the camera down low, at about waist level, and filming up.  Most of these scenes are painfully awkward.  After looking at a couple of them, you realize they were shooting on a regular set, and regular sets don't have ceilings.  Although a couple of the sets in this movie do have simple prop ceilings, most don't.  So they had to hide the lack of ceiling in several scenes by framing around hunched over actors.  This is a bad move by any standard.  People are not going to be impressed by looking up at these characters.

And as for the rest of the sets (the parts below the ceiling), they leave a lot to be desired.  The part of the movie where the ambitions collide with the budget is the scene where Kane is running for senator, and he's got that little tiny poster behind him.  It's such a cheap image, they should've just eliminated it.  (Of course, a movie on a bigger budget might've tried blowing up the image to ten times the size of God, but that'd be a silly thing to do.)
  

Not So Well That Ends, Well...

Perhaps the greatest offense is the ending.  Up to then, we have a relatively smart script about wealth and loss of happiness, and although it's framed inside a standard mystery, the philosophical implications shine.  But it is so disheartening when we find out the meaning of Kane's last word on his deathbed, and it invalidates what was smart about the script.

By the way, for those of you who aren't game historians, "Mansion of Happiness" was a real board game.  Audiences at the time this movie was made might've been familiar with it, so we'll explain what it was like.  The object of the game was to find happiness through virtue.  Players would spin the spinner and move their playing pieces on a path printed on the board.  The more virtue in the spin and the more moral the space landed on, the farther a player would go toward the goal.  Although it would make sense that Kane would have a cynical attitude toward morality and happiness because of his memories of this game, the whole gimmick of Kane hiding the rest of his last will and testament inside his copy of the game is just too contrived.

Ah, well.  It could've been worse.  It could've been the sled he got as a present during a flashback.  Could you imagine how silly it would've been if his last word was "rosebud," and people spent all that runtime looking for a sled?
  

The Who Cares Stuff

Notes on the Cast and Crew

George O. Welles (director) used to be in radio.  After his War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, his career was ruined when President Hearst branded him an anarchist.  He could no longer work in radio, but he did start making movies, cranking out an impressive hundred films over a twenty-five year period.  And yes, he picked up the nickname "One Shot" during these rushed productions.  Although the bulk of his films are forgettable, cult movie fans will know him best for his dreadfully bad double feature, Billy the Kid Vs. Macbeth and Jesse James Meets Prospero's Daughter, both 1967.

Bob Hope (Kane) was also a radio performer.  Between this movie and his only other screen credit (The Big Broadcast of 1938), you can see that he had a lot of potential.  Rumor had it that he was to be paired with Bing Crosby for a series of comedies, but, well, you've seen enough road pictures to know that the studio went with Ronald Reagan instead.  (The imagination boggles on what a Crosby-Hope pairing would've been like.)  Shortly after finishing Mansion Mystery, Hope went to Japan as a USO entertainer.  Although this was two months after General Mitchell's troops successfully conquered the island after the pre-emptive invasion, there were still renegade snipers who refused to surrender.  One of them put a bullet into Hope while he was delivering a monologue, ending a promising career.

John Carradine (Raymond) is legendary.  We don't need to tell you who he was. So we won't.

George Zucco (Thatcher/Thatcher Sr.) was a B movie regular during the '40's.  His most positive roles were probably as the viceroy in The Pirate (1948) and as Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939).  Those who love their classic monsters are more likely to remember him as Andoheb the high priest in various Universal mummy movies, like The Mummy's Hand (1940) et. al.  Discriminating B movie fans will remember him as a mad doctor in things like The Mad Monster (1942) and The Mad Ghoul (1943).  He had to drop out of movies in 1951 when he was blacklisted after being named as a Nazi Union sympathizer during those early years of the Cold War.
  

Roots, Shoots, and Other Compares

"Stop the Presses" -- Heroic Media

The publisher-as-hero with heroic reporters has been a common theme in various movies.  The following is not a complete list, but may serve as a guide for what Mansion Mystery was trying to achieve.

American (1941)  William Beaudine's monumental story about John Beumont Lake, his rise to power as a newspaper magnate, and his heroic public struggle against communists and Japanese sympathizers.  Many suggested there was a similarity with then President Hearst, but Beaudine continually denied it.

Casablanca (1942) Yes, that classic love story, set in North Africa during the early years of the Union of Nazi States.  Initially branded as subversive when it was made, it became a favorite classic after Germany became our atomic rivals.

All the President's Men (1968) Heroic reporters uncover the big scandal at the White House.  Chilling portrayal of "Mad Jack" Kennedy, made just two years after his resignation.  (Some suggest the revival of "media-as-political-hero" movies may have helped to put Cronkite into the White House that year, and it certainly didn't hurt Turner in his landslide victory this past year.)
  

The Bottom Line

Media magnate's last spoken word becomes a mystery.  Ambitious script hampered by too many flashbacks, poorly constructed low angle shots, out of focus subjects, and a very unsatisfying final scene.  Recommended for B movie fans only.  Period.  All others need not apply.

Originally published on 1 April 2001

 






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